The Importance of Notation

Every so often, an article comes along that sends a ripple through my social media. Being a college-trained musician, I know a lot of musicians, and I know a lot of music teachers. In addition to the normal social media fare of memes and pictures of friends' kids/cats, I also see a lot of stuff about music and education. When an article pops up that discusses music education specifically, there's usually a lot of interest; when said article attacks music education, people get angry. I'm not talking about the garden variety, background radiation level of anger that the internet seems to constantly secrete. It's an impassioned anger that comes from the distinct feeling of having this thing that we love attacked. This past weekend, such an article appeared in my social media world.

The article in question, featured on Huffington Post, is "Why is Sheet Music Still Considered Necessary for Music Education?" by Robbie Gennet. The article is about... well, the title kind of says it all, really. Gennet is a musician and author who advocates for an approach to music education that teaches students without the use of music notation. In his estimation, notation is mostly an outdated recording system, and is largely irrelevant in our modern culture of music making. As proof of this premise, Gennet kicks things off with a long list of famous musicians who don't read music (and some who actually do, because research is for chumps). He frames his "notation-free paradigm" as a populist stance; these musicians didn't need sheet music to gain wealth and fame, so why do you? Taylor Swift didn't need any of that music school book learnin', she became a star armed with only her tears and an acoustic guitar (and also a team of producers)! But don't take my word for it, let's look at a confusing pile of letters:

That list of musicians at the top shows in very certain terms that notation is not an actual gateway to musical knowledge, learning, performance or writing. In fact, it acts as a firewall to the majority of beginning students who attempt to navigate it. I would imagine someone like Bob Marley wouldn't have made the cut at Berklee or Julliard (sic) but that has literally no bearing on his musical contributions, abilities or worth.

Ok....

I don't think there are many people out there (not comically polishing a monocle) claiming that music school is the only path to creating worthwhile music, particularly in the pop realm. There's a lot of reasons, both cultural and musical, why Bob Marley's music is valuable, none of which are necessarily related to his hypothetical ability to get into Juilliard. Also, different styles and genres of music have different cultural norms and standards of musicianship, and it's unfair and unhelpful to try and apply a blanket metric of judgement to all of them. But, I digress, back to the nonsense!

According to Gennet, musical notation has, "never been less essential to making music," especially with the preponderance of new technologies now available to aid us. With so many notation-free options out there, why must we cling to the past? Why are educational institutions so attached to these old-fashioned notions of teaching written notation (spoilers: he blames federal accreditation standards; thanks Obama)?

Let's dig a little deeper.


On his website, Gennet makes the bold statement that, "notation is not music; it is a language of it’s own and not the easiest one to learn or understand." One of his main critiques of notation, which he *charmingly* refers to as a "script," is that it is "inflexible," and "doesn't give you any real understanding of the language itself." To bolster his claims about the inflexibility of the system, Gennet cites criticism of Glenn Gould's controversial 1955 recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations as proof of the consequences of deviating from the "script." He also makes the claim that notation does not allow a performer to improvise or adapt, or to add their own artistic voice to the process of creating music.

 Pictured: Completely non-creative regurgitation.

Pictured: Completely non-creative regurgitation.

Leaving out that these viewpoints are insulting to performers, composers, arrangers, educators, students, enthusiasts, and generally anyone involved in music in any capacity, they're also pretty logically flawed. Let's try to break down a few points:

Notation is primarily a recording system and is outdated. One of the historical functions of written music was the creation of a physical record of a piece, that's true. But, that's not its only purpose, and the invention of sound recording didn't make notation irrelevant any more than the invention of film made books irrelevant.

Notation is unimportant because Beatles. Gennet likes to bring up the four mop-topped lads from Liverpool as an example of being hugely successful and influential without the need for reading music. While it's true that the Beatles themselves didn't read sheet music, their producer George Martin (you know, the guy commonly referred to as the "fifth" Beatle) certainly did. He also wrote it, too, a skill which he put to use in the recording of songs such as "Yesterday," "Eleanor Rigby," "A Day in the Life," or really almost any Beatles song containing instruments other than guitar, piano, bass, or drums. That experimentation with other instruments and styles is a big part of what made their sound so unique and influential. Lots of pop acts rely on the skills of music reading producers, writers, and performers in the recording and production of their albums.

 The fifth Beatle. No, not Pete Best.

The fifth Beatle. No, not Pete Best.

Notation is just dots and lines on a page. Also scary foreign words (yuck). While it's true that a lot of music notation fits this description, I don't think we can so readily discount chord symbols or other forms of notation from the system. The difference is that most musicians (even pop stars) CAN read these notations; the Beatles couldn't read music, but they could damn sure read a chord chart. Have you ever searched the internet for guitar tabs? They're everywhere! Reading and understanding chord symbols is also an important part of learning jazz, a genre which Gennet seems to think is completely notation-free.

Notation is "inflexible." Just ask Glenn Gould! He deviated from "THE SCRIPT." Let's do an experiment: go google recordings of any of the Beethoven symphonies (doesn't matter which one). Did you find more than one recording of the symphony? Did you find more than one recording of the symphony BY THE SAME ORCHESTRA? Weird right? Well, not really, because there's this little thing called interpretation. Any piece of music is going to have a pretty surprising amount of interpretive flexibility, and different musicians will have a surprising range of interpretations. Not only is this flexibility NOT hindered by the notation, it's facilitated by it; musicians can get a lot of different things out of the same piece of music. To borrow from Gennet's (awful) metaphor, scripts give an actor lines and general instructions, but there's still a whole spectrum of performance choices that can be made. Part of the interest that people had in Gould as a performer was how radically different some of his interpretations were from those of his peers, and at times he was criticized for it. That's not a failure of notation or proof that it's "inflexible"; such an inflexible system would be ill-equipped to support such a diverse array of interpretations.

 "Inflexible."

"Inflexible."

Notation does not give a performer an understanding of the language. You know, like how novels written in German are useless because they don't immediately teach you how to speak the language. Also, who ever claimed that this was the sole purpose of the written component of ANY language? Also, yes, notation does give a performer an understanding of the language, because musicians are trained to read a lot more than just the individual notes on the page.

Notation does not allow for a performer's creative voice or improvisation. See "inflexible." Also, seriously, does Gennet really not understand that jazz is in fact not played exclusively by ear and that jazz musicians use sheet music all the time? Looking at a head chart allows musicians to understand a lot of things about a tune, like its melody, harmonic structure, phrase structure, etc. These musicians might not use sheet music on a gig, choosing instead to rely on memorization, but that doesn't mean they never use it ever. I know I've never toured with NICK LACHEY, but I have spent a lot of time performing, touring, and recording as a jazz musician, and I'm pretty familiar with the process of learning a tune.


So, why teach notation? The simplest answer is, why not? It's not that difficult (as a friend of mine put it, "I've taught FIVE-year-olds how to read music"). It's a time-honored method that's been used in music education for centuries. It gives students a more complete understanding of music, both from a theoretical and historical perspective. It's a helpful visual aid in illustrating and solidifying musical concepts. It gives students an opportunity to be involved with band, choir, and orchestra in school, and to join community groups when they're out of school. It gives them a way to connect with the music they love. It gives them a means to communicate musically with others across cultural and linguistic boundaries through a shared musical language. It looks cool; It's fun. Should we be encouraging the incorporation of ear training and creativity in music education? Absolutely. But these skills aren't mutually exclusive with learning notation.

 How can you not LOVE this!?

How can you not LOVE this!?

Look, I'm not an elitist, and I'm not a snob. There is a lot of great music out there being made by people who can't read music. I've performed with some terrific musicians who couldn't read. Good music is good music, regardless of whether it's written down or not, and lots of people can find fulfillment in music without ever having to learn to read a note.

I don't really mind that Gennet is trying to pitch an alternative method to music education. While I think that school music programs and the majority of students are better served by being introduced to notation, I recognize that there are some out there who could benefit from a non-traditional approach, particularly in private study. So why does any of this matter? Well, because we're talking about educational institutions, and it's important that we maintain proper standards of excellence when teaching our students.

Gennet's biggest gripe with our music education system is that it is rigidly concerned with teaching students music through learning to read notation. In his mind, this is the wrong approach; that's fine, he's entitled to his opinion. But what, pray tell, would be a better solution to this educational conundrum? Why HIS teaching method, of course, which you can learn all about by checking out his book, which is on sale FOR MONEY! As a demonstration of his method, Gennet released a short YouTube video in which he explains his approach to notation-free music. While discussing the construction of major and minor scales, this sentence actually escapes his mouth:

"Usually, traditional teachers will teach you how everything is different, and never teach you that there is this one numerical formula that makes everything sound the same."

Um... yes, yes they do. They don't teach you in your very first lesson, but that's why you have to stick with it buddy! On his website, he goes even further, claiming:

"the majority of students who begin with notation do not continue on into music, while the minority that do get notation never develop an understanding of music which enables them to improvise or develop their own voice."

There's really no other way to say it: this is just flat out wrong. It's a complete misunderstanding of how music education works. It's a distortion of the methods that music teachers use. It's derisive, it's self-serving, and it's lying.

It.

Is.

Wrong.

As an educator, I've taught students how to read and notate music. I've taught them to understand how music is put together. I've taught them how to improvise and how to explore, how to be curious, how to open their ears, and how to dig deeper. I've done this because I love music, and because I earnestly want to share it with those around me. I want to teach students in the best and most complete way possible about the art of music, and hopefully, if I'm lucky, how to have a better appreciation for the importance of the arts in our society.

I will tolerate a lot of things, but I will NOT stomach some two-bit studio pianist trying to use lies and misinformation in an attempt to cynically peddle his book by tapping into a culture of anti-intellectualism and instant gratification. There are a lot of real threats and challenges to our educational system out there right now, and we owe it to our students to do everything we can to ensure that they receive the best education possible. Teaching them to fear and dismiss those things which they may, at first, find difficult and unnecessary is the absolute worst place to start.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go find a dark corner somewhere and calm down. I think maybe I'll listen to the Beatles.